In the past I have extolled Australian Cabinet processes, arguing that only Australia—in contrast with the UK and Canada—maintains the true tradition of Cabinet government. Collective discussion and decision-making provide a firm foundation for good policy and effective public administration. When it fails, good governance is undermined. The HIP and NBN prove the case.
A major factor in many of the poor decisions taken in relation to both programs was failure in the operation of the Cabinet. Cabinet consideration was either perfunctory or replaced by an inner group of ministers making decisions free from wider scrutiny. Hanger found that significant decisions regarding
the HIP were made by the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee of Cabinet—three or four ministers that did not include the minister responsible for the program. In the case of the NBN, the full Cabinet was not engaged in decision-making. That was one of the major reasons for policy failure. As Scales recognised, "effective use of Cabinet processes is critical
to better practice public policy process. The rigours of a well‐argued Cabinet submission contribute to scrutiny, informed debate and decision-making within government."
Collective perusal of a proposal provides a powerful antidote to peremptory decision-making. Each person can ask their questions and put forward their views. In presenting the 2013 Sir John Monash Oration, the Minister for Communications, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, reflected on the fact that, under
the Australian Cabinet system, "the Prime Minister is surrounded by people who have a standing of their own. They have a power base of their own. And that is very important. . . decisions have to be taken in a collective manner or should be taken in a collective manner." Unfortunately, it would seem that such processes of collective decision-making were falling apart by the time HIP, NBN and BER were under consideration. According to David Epstein, who was the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, by late 2008, "[p]roper
functioning Cabinet government ceased to exist. More and more the discussion was about politics and the real business was not conducted." Many areas of government were affected. With respect to the development of an emissions trading scheme, for
example, the "catalyst for the long slide towards a policy fiasco was [the] decision to abolish Cabinet's climate change subcommittee." The former Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Hon Tony Burke MP, shared Epstein's view. As
he told Paul Kelly: "In the end we stopped making decisions at Cabinet. The official business of Cabinet took no time and then we'd have a political discussion, but with no agenda, no direction, no decision." Terry Moran, then Secretary of PM&C, conveyed his concerns about the weakening of Cabinet
processes, but to no avail.
Cabinet operations involve a difficult balancing act. Too much policy discussion in Cabinet, and the politics can be forgotten. Too much politics, and public administration can be weakened. In the case of HIP and NBN the balance moved too far away from collective discussion and assessment of administrative
challenges. The perceived need for quick decision making and rapid implementation drove the Prime Minister to circumvent traditional Cabinet processes. Critical perusal was avoided. As a consequence, government made extravagant promises based on ill-considered optimism. Most Cabinet ministers remained
blissfully unaware that their public service agencies believed that they would be unable to deliver on the commitments. The consequence turned out to be catastrophic.
Another area of failure affecting the systems that support ministerial decision-making was the relationship between the APS and ministerial advisers. The relationship can go awry when there is a breakdown in mutual trust. Advisers, as gatekeepers, can make it harder for public servants to gain access
to a minister and, worse, make it difficult to know if a minister has actually received the advice that the minister needs to consider. Blurring of accountabilities around policy advice to ministers leads to confusion and poor outcomes. In the case of the HIP, there appears to have been a breakdown in
communication between departments and the responsible minister. despite conversations between senior public servants and advisers about aspects of program implementation, too few of the officials' concerns reached ministers. At times, the minister did not receive written briefings and as a consequence
decisions were made without awareness of all the relevant facts.
Policy starts with an idea, which is worked up by departments and prepared for discussion by the Cabinet. Its submission requires the authority of the Prime Minister. public servants in the lead minister's department prepare papers for the Cabinet's consideration, including submissions and memoranda.
Occasionally, they provide short-form updates to facilitate an early discussion with their minister on the options for design and delivery of a new proposal. All documentation, formatted to address key issues, is meant to be informed by thorough research, rigorous analysis and genuine consultation across
government departments. Central agencies—PM&C, Treasury and Finance—have an opportunity to provide their views. Often this process is iterative and conducted over several months; at other times the process is necessarily much faster.
Draft papers are circulated to other departments for comment, leading to further refinement of the proposal. The submission evolves into a document used to communicate the proposal to a minister's Cabinet colleagues. Whilst the majority of other ministers are not generally subject-matter experts on
the policy at hand, they will have an interest in the implications for their own portfolios and constituents. They will assess a major project or program against the government's wider political agenda and the policy commitments already underway. By this stage, details of the proposal (and volumes of
supporting analysis) have been distilled to their essence. A good Cabinet submission explains to ministers succinctly what they need to know to make an informed decision, and ensures they are alert to the risks, possible unintended consequences and threats to successful implementation. The submission is circulated well ahead of the Cabinet meeting so that ministers have time to consider it. During the Cabinet meeting, the relevant minister presents the submission and it is thoroughly discussed amongst the Cabinet, before a decision
is made. Public service note-takers, seated around the corners of the Cabinet room, carefully record the discussion and, in consultation with the Cabinet Secretary, set down the decisions made.
There are well-established requirements designed to ensure good Cabinet process, particularly when a major new project or program is being proposed. The forward planning of agendas, oversighted by the Cabinet Secretary, assists ministers to properly prepare. Cabinet documents are made available to
all ministers at least 10 days before they are considered by Cabinet. This gives responsible ministers the time to hone their arguments before they are put to Cabinet for decision. Central agencies and other departments are provided with the opportunity to review proposals and provide their perspectives
on the merits of a policy and the manner in which it should be delivered. Coordination comments are an important opportunity for departments to signal their concerns.
If too many so-called 'under the line' papers (matters which are considered by Cabinet without the benefit of a supporting submission) are being prepared at short notice it is a sign of a Cabinet process in trouble. Except in true emergencies, they indicate that the policy commissioning process is
poorly planned and that competing perspectives are either not valued or actively discouraged. Nearly always, implementation risks will be understated. Whilst urgent and unforseen under the line proposals will be needed on occasion, these should be supplemented by a later submission to Cabinet that includes
a properly considered implementation strategy. The same expectations ought to apply to decisions taken during the expedited phases of the Budget process.
Good process is fundamental to supporting good Cabinet decision-making. It is designed to allow policy ideas to be tested and contested before they are put to the Cabinet for decision, and to ensure that ministers are as well-informed as possible about proposals before they enter the Cabinet room.
They can be full participants in discussions. They can raise their concerns and have them addressed. Consensus can be reached.
Collective decision-making lies at the heart of Cabinet government. It requires ministers to be open and committed to a contest of ideas. Views which may have been firmly held can be reshaped based on considerations of merit, practicality and risk. Ministers can together decide if they wish to spend
their limited political capital on a major new program. departments contribute to the debate by providing coordination comments on the submission and briefing their ministers before they attend Cabinet.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is evident that the HIP and NBN (particularly in its second phase) were poorly designed policies, borne of inadequate consultation. Because good Cabinet processes were compromised, public servants were unable to ensure an appropriate level of ministerial scrutiny and
informed debate. The opportunity to seek further work to address weaknesses in design and execution was lost.
It is almost impossible to imagine either the HIP or the second phase of the NBN emerging from a proper Cabinet process in the shape in which they were ultimately implemented. Even before the proposals reached Cabinet, risks that had been overlooked or underplayed would almost certainly have been identified;
the lack of consultation with the states or industry bodies would have rung alarm bells; implementation difficulties would have been highlighted; and, in all likelihood, a more realistic timeframe agreed. In the case of the HIP, the tensions between policy objectives would have been debated and resolved
between departments or, failing that, in discussions between ministers in Cabinet.
Good Cabinet processes are not a matter of administrative convenience. Governments can decide how they want Cabinet to operate most effectively. Certainly ministers should have a strong investment in the submissions that they present to Cabinet. After all, they own them. By convention, ministers take
full responsibility for the content, quality and accuracy of advice provided to the Cabinet under their name. Ministers are expected to ensure that their Cabinet submissions provide enough detail on risk and implementation challenges to ensure their Cabinet colleagues can make an informed decision on the merits of the proposal. When these responsibilities are eschewed—for example, when ministers disown submissions as the work of their departments rather than a proper expression of their own views—the foundations of Westminster ministerial accountability are undermined. Conversely, departments
are expected to cede ownership of submissions. Cabinet memoranda are the appropriate vehicle for conveying a department's own views to the Cabinet where this is required. When it comes to submissions, any misgivings that public servants have about a minister's preferred approach should be argued out
beforehand. That is a key purpose of frank and fearless briefing. The submission is intended to reflect the minister's perspective. It needs to win over the support of their Cabinet colleagues.
The quality of Cabinet submissions is a common topic of complaint from ministers. Each government publishes a Cabinet Handbook which sets out a preferred version of the Cabinet submission template. Often it undergoes subsequent revisions during the government's term in attempts to address perceived
shortcomings in the advice that Cabinet receives. It is important to get the template right. It needs to facilitate efficient drafting by public servants and, most importantly, serve the needs of the Cabinet of the day by supporting good decision-making. It is for this reason that the key matters to
be addressed are carefully prescribed. The present standards incorporate a statement of purpose; justification for the proposed policy direction (including the canvassing of options); the impact of the policies on those who will be affected; the views of stakeholders; information on how any proposals
are to be implemented; key sensitivities and risks; regulatory, regional, legislative and financial implications; financial costs; and, crucially, a clear set of recommendations.
The hallmarks of good Cabinet process need to be assured by PM&C as part of its coordination role, acting with the imprimatur of the Prime Minister and supported by his or her staff, including the Cabinet Secretary. This role should extend to providing assurance that the quality standards for submissions
are met. This does not mean that submissions need to be long. Ministers do not have time to wade through pages of detailed supporting argument and analysis, but they need to be assured that the work has been done. At their best, Cabinet papers represent the apex of a 'policy pyramid', supported by extensive
research, analysis, reasoning, consultation and testing. A proposal should be refined and made shorter and simpler as it progresses through the coordination process and into Cabinet. The supporting information can be available to ministers should they wish to see it—and some of it may be sufficiently
important to include in attachments to the proposal—but the essence of the argument and the critical supporting information should be condensed into a few pages. That is what public servants are trained to do. It takes skill, experience and (on occasion) a bit of savviness.
In a well-functioning Cabinet, submissions drafted by public servants that do not meet the quality standards agreed by the Cabinet—that have arguments that are poorly presented or are mired in too much unnecessary detail—should be sent back for more work before they get to the Cabinet Room.
The ability of PM&C to reject submissions as part of its coordination role is paramount to maintaining these standards. Without this signal there is less incentive for departments and ministers to put their very best work in front of Cabinet. This should be the least we expect of the highest-level
decision-making forum in our democracy.
Inevitably, ministers can sometimes feel hemmed in by 'bureaucratic' guidelines. If the format is too rigid and ministers feel unable to present information to colleagues in the way that they think best, it can contribute to a reduced sense of ministerial ownership. Ministers can come to the view that
Cabinet requirements effectively empower public servants at their expense. It is important to find ways of allowing ministers greater flexibility to make their case to colleagues without loosening the standards required of Cabinet submissions. A clear advantage is that a minister's ownership of a major
program (and the burden of answerability, responsibility and accountability that goes with it) can be reinforced.
With this in mind, there would be value in setting aside the first page of all submissions for a ministerial statement, outlining in the minister's own words the policy's purpose, expected outcomes and anticipated implementation risks. They can be assisted by their advisers. Whilst it is likely that
the body of a submission will still be drafted in the department (in consultation with the minister), the ministerial statement would provide a more personalised pitch to their Cabinet colleagues. With the agreement of the Prime Minister, ministers can be given the freedom to present their proposal as
they see fit whether by talking to their submission or using a PowerPoint presentation to highlight the key issues.
Notwithstanding PM&C's role as a custodian of Cabinet process, it must be careful not to overstep the boundaries of its power. PM&C is at its best when it plays a coordinating role across government, honing arguments, reconciling differing views, facilitating a whole-of-government approach
and encouraging the contestability of views to support more productive Cabinet deliberations. Their positional authority gives extra weight to their views. But coordination can become control. The HIP processes illustrate that the value of having PM&C co-ordinating policy development is " …
undone when PM&C itself pushes a particular agenda at all costs and without having any detailed knowledge of the program or project." When such views are imposed on other departments they can unduly influence the advice provided to ministers and compromise individual ministerial accountability. When PM&C conveys a direction, whether of its own initiative or at the request
of the Prime Minister or their office, a legitimate response by departments—indeed the responsible and prudent course of action—is to discuss with their own ministers the risks of the proposed approach and the merits of alternative options.
(ii) Ministerial offices
My views on advisers have been made clear in the past. I think they perform a valuable role in contemporary governance. They ensure that ministers (and shadow ministers) can be advised by people who share their political ideology. Their presence makes it easier for public servants to focus on apolitical
advice. The advisers help their ministers to question and challenge the views of their departments. Monopoly is never a good thing, and in the provision of policy advice it can be particularly dangerous. On occasion public servants and ministerial advisers may vie for the ear of the minister. More often
they will work together, respecting each other's particular roles.
My perspective is not universally shared. Staffers are increasingly portrayed as the villains of public administration. Critics suggest that they have grown too big for their boots. Jennifer Westacott, the Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), has called for the number or influence
of ministerial advisers to be reduced. She characterises them as "political gatekeepers, with little experience and no accountability." The BRW journalist, Leo D'Angelo Fisher, has gone further, claiming that "ministerial staffers treating public servants like second-class citizens is a feature of modern government."
I am not of this view. Staffers play a valuable role in helping overburdened ministers cope with the increasing complexity of modern government. I concur with Lynne Ashpole, a former chief of staff, that advisers "work on behalf of ministers to mediate between policy committees, stakeholders, and interest
groups like the BCA, in a way that apolitical public servants cannot". During my time in the APS I generally found that advisers made a positive contribution to policy development. Of course, arguments can become heated, but the relationship is best
perceived as one of critical collaboration, not a perpetual state of war.
Ministerial advisers play an essential role in supporting ministers to fulfil their duties. It is a diverse job: they apply political judgement to their advice on policy issues and media relations as well as providing personal and administrative support for their ministers. They broker relationships
between ministers and their political parties, public service departments, broader interest groups, and constituents. The volume and complexity of ministers' workloads make 'staffers' an indispensable part of ministers' support structure. Ministers are assured that they can rely on people who share their
political philosophy and with whom they have built a relationship of deep trust.
"Departments should be able to provide advice on any subject within the minister's responsibilities that is better structured and better considered than anything that can be produced in the minister's office; the department has resources; the adviser tends to be on his or her own." (March 2014)
Don Russell was the Secretary of the Department of Industry from 2011 to 2013. He is now the Chief Executive of South Australia's Department of State Development
The roles of public servants and advisers are distinct. The two groups operate under different legislative and policy frameworks. The Whitlam Government introduced partisan ministerial advisers when it came to power in 1972, primarily to ensure that ministers would receive support from a cadre of individuals
who shared their political convictions. The role of ministerial advisers was formalised by the hawke Government with the passage of the Members of Parliament (Staff) Act 1984 (the MoPS Act). While the role of the APS is detailed in legislation, those of advisers are largely governed by convention. This is true not only in Australia but in other Westminster-based systems of government.
In contrast to the roles of apolitical public servants, many advisers are explicitly political. While public servants provide non-partisan advice, advisers offer a partisan perspective. For the most part, these distinctions are complementary and ultimately beneficial to ministers. They add to the diversity
of skills, experience, perspectives and ideas available to support decision-making. The presence of advisers allows public servants to be robustly independent in their advice, knowing that those in the minister's office are there to focus on the political challenges it may present. It brings competing
ideas to the minister who, on occasion, can witness the clash of viewpoints played out before them. That's a good thing. As a Secretary, I always felt that if I could not win an argument on the basis of my intellect or experience, and marshalling the full resources of my department, then I was either
ineffective or wrong. Often, I discovered, the informed perspective of an adviser was valuable.
The area in which the roles of advisers and public servants most converge is in providing policy advice to ministers. Both groups have a part to play here, and there can be competition between advisers and public servants as they each seek to influence ministers. Both sides will be seeking to persuade
one another to their own point of view. Senior public servants may lament the increasing influence exerted by inexperienced 'wet behind the ears' political advisers, or 'the boy scouts in the minister's office'. Advisers may rail against the caution of 'stodgy bureaucrats' or the irritating self-importance
of 'mandarins'. But advisers and public servants who respect each other's roles can together improve rigorous, informed and considered decision-making.
Of course, there can be tensions when advisers over-reach. Advisers should never be mere post boxes for conveying a department's views: they play a legitimate role as gatekeepers to ministers. The ever-present danger is that they may seek to use their position to block APS advice with which they disagree,
or leave public servants unclear whether or not the minister has seen departmental advice. In the case of the HIP, it seems clear that on at least one occasion information provided by the lead department did not find its way to the minister. Advisers should not prevent advice being seen by ministers without formal notification to the department and the creation of a record of this decision. When the source of advice becomes blurred—for example, if advisers seek to override advice
provided by the APS without the authority of their minister, or if the APS too readily acquiesces to the position of the adviser—lines of accountability can be eroded and decision-making is compromised. At all times a minister needs to be clear
on what advice has been provided by their department and what alternative views may be held by their advisers. It is then for the minister to decide which direction to take.
Advisers do wield significant power, but it comes from the minister. They are accountable to Parliament through their minister. Only with the authority of their minister do advisers have the right to instigate policy, to comment upon it and, on occasion, to veto it. They do not have the power to direct
public servants to change their advice where it differs from their own view or that of the minister, nor to prevent departmental advice from reaching their minister in a timely manner. Notwithstanding FOI concerns, most ministers want to know the views of their department, even if they later chose to
amend or reject them. When departmental advice does not reach the minister, it can only mean two things: poor management within the minister's office or a misuse of positional power. In either case, particularly when the issue at stake is a major new program or large-scale project, decisions will be compromised.
"[Advisers] add value, there's no doubt about it… it is a bit of a battle for departments at times, not just Treasury, to make sure there is cohesion on policy advice, and… order in how things go through." (2015)
John Fraser is Secretary to the Treasury
The Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff sets out well the principles of personal integrity, professionalism and behaviour expected of ministerial staff. It clearly recognises appropriate behaviours but it is not as unequivocal on these
matters as it should be. The Standards says that advisers must "acknowledge" they are not authorised to direct public servants and "recognise" that executive decisions are the preserve of ministers and public servants. Comparable policies and guidance in other jurisdictions instead instruct advisers
on what they "must not" and "may not" do. Such explicit directions are likely to be more effective as a guide to practice.
There are also doubts about the level of awareness that advisers or public servants have of the Standards. The Prime Minister's endorsement of changes to make the Standards more definitive, which would be a necessary part of any revisions, would raise their profile with both audiences. It would establish a strong 'authorising environment' by which to underpin cultural mores in the
There are other means that could be employed towards the same ends. The Standards could be strengthened by a formal system of enforcement and sanctions. It could also be legislated. That is the view of Terry Moran, my successor as Secretary of PM&C. He came to the conclusion that legislation is necessary because ministerial advisers are "becoming a black hole
of accountability within our parliamentary democracy". I do not propose legislation. It is true that not all actions of an adviser are an expression of the 'persona' of a minister, and that public servants need to be absolutely assured that the ministers
have seen and expressed their own judgement on departmental advice. My view, however, is that the principle of ministerial accountability should provide an adequate check on the behaviour of ministerial staff and is in keeping with the nature of their employment contract—one of direct responsibility
to their minister, who holds ultimate accountability for the conduct of their staff. Given that advisers do not exercise executive decision-making powers, it would be inappropriate for them to be called before Parliamentary committees.
Despite the demands of their positions, ministerial advisers receive little role-specific training or institutional support. There is no formal induction process for new advisers. Most of their learning is on-the-job. They can be thrown into deep and often treacherous waters to sink or swim, with few
people around able to throw them a lifeline should they need it. The inherent volatility of advisers' roles, together with the vagaries of ministerial reshuffles and electoral cycles, means that the turnover of ministerial staff can be high. Of course there are trade-offs for these hardships. Working
at the very heart of government can be a hugely rewarding, stimulating and exciting opportunity. Yet few public servants really appreciate how difficult and tenuous the adviser's position can be.
Conversely, advisers may not fully appreciate the role of the APS and the constraints within which public servants operate. Advisers often do not comprehend that much of the bureaucratic 'process' surrounding the manner in which departments work is intended to deliver a better outcome. Secretaries
have to run large 'businesses,' and much of it may be outsourced. Increasingly, they are required to oversight organisations outside government that have been contracted to deliver major programs. Unlike advisers, Secretaries know that they face the prospect of having to account for their administrative
actions before Parliamentary committees and to have their conduct scrutinised by the Ombudsman, Auditor-General and Administrative Appeals Tribunal. Not surprisingly, public servants feel much more keenly than advisers the responsibilities of management and the level of scrutiny under which they operate.
Investing in the relationship between advisers and public servants, and building mutual understanding, will benefit officials, advisers and ministers alike. Providing regular opportunities for ministerial advisers to participate in joint activities with those senior APS staff with whom they work would
result in improved knowledge and shared understanding of each other's distinctive roles and would also create stronger working relationships. These joint forums should involve experienced advisers and public servants as well as newcomers. The agenda should cover the principles, policies and legislation
on which the roles and relationship are based, and the perspectives and experiences of both groups in advising ministers. This could be achieved in a number of ways. For example, the Australian Public Service Commissioner, in consultation with senior political advisers, could convene a regular half-day
workshop for advisers and public servants, with course materials developed and presented jointly by former parliamentarians, advisers and senior public servants. Alternatively, an external organisation such as the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) could be engaged to present seminars
on practical policy development, available both to Commonwealth and state jurisdictions, with senior public servants and advisers encouraged to attend together.
There are few insights available on the relationship between advisers and public servants beyond the anecdotal. APS employees were last surveyed on their interactions with advisers in 2011, when over one-third of public servants who had direct contact with advisers reported that they had experienced
difficulties balancing the need for responsiveness and impartiality. In contrast, the views and experiences of advisers on their interactions with the APS have never been formally sought. Joint workshops, well facilitated, would allow perceptions to be tested and concerns addressed.
Another initiative that can deliver strong benefits for ministers, their staff and departments is the rotation of public servants through ministers' offices as advisers. These well-established arrangements should be actively encouraged. Relatively little investment is required. The process helps to
demystify the practical differences between respective roles. Ministerial offices benefit from the subject matter expertise and practical knowledge of experienced public servants, while APS employees gain valuable insights and experiences into the inner workings of government. The challenge is to ensure
that an offer to work in a minister's office is viewed as a valuable opportunity with personal and broader public benefits, rather than being regarded as a poisoned chalice. people coming back to the APS (or joining for the first time from ministerial offices) must not be regarded as politically tainted.
People join ministerial offices with a variety of motivations—often because they want to extend their career experience but also from a wish to make a fuller contribution to public life. Their learning can be harnessed on both sides of the role divide. It should be made as easy as possible for
public servants to be reintegrated into their departments once they have done a stint as a ministerial adviser. Their return should be welcomed.
Senior public servants and ministerial advisers each have a duty to inform, and an opportunity to influence, government decision-making. At the end of the day, though, it is up to ministers to make decisions, and they are best able to do so when their advisers and officials work well together. By standing
in each other's shoes, by openly recognising the nature of their different roles, mutual respect can be built. Good policy will be the reward.
Conclusions | supporting decision making
To acknowledge ministerial ownership of Cabinet proposals, submissions should open with a personal Ministerial Statement outlining the policy's purpose, expected outcomes and anticipated implementation risks.
In preparing Cabinet documents, Secretaries should ensure that the arguments presented reflect the viewpoint of their ministers. Assisted by government coordination processes, they also need to make certain that all relevant considerations for government are addressed in a clear and succinct fashion.
The Statement of Standards for Ministerial Staff should be tightened to provide explicit and unambiguous statements that advisers must not direct public servants without ministerial authorisation nor seek to make executive decisions.
Joint forums for ministerial advisers and APS senior executives should be conducted regularly to raise the efficacy of their working relationship and build mutual respect and understanding of the importance of their respective roles.
 Weller, P 2007, Cabinet Government in Australia, 1901-2006: practice, principles, performance, UNSW Press, Sydney, pp. 278-280.
 Hanger, I 2014, p. 306.
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